Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

No Peace for the Newsworthy 2

Speaking of posthumous (but not quite) publicity, herewith more than you want to know about your blushing blogtogenarian, written with superb journalistic accuracy and acumen by Patricia Gay of The Weston (CT) Forum. I would apologize to Jon Stewart, but I don't have his e-mail address.

No Peace for the Newsworthy

Will somebody please, please bury Anna Nicole Smith and James Brown so we can stop hearing about their posthumous real-estate problems?

All this hoo-ha is just validating the old media saw that, for some celebrities, death can be a great career move. They don't need the publicity now.

Back to the Future

If Newt Gingrich is the Republican answer, what is the question?

As Rudy Giuliani and John McCain try to retro-fit themselves to ultra-conservative specifications, the Newtster, who hasn’t even taken off his sweat clothes, is running third in the party’s polls.

The pol who gave us a Contract with America and put one out on Bill Clinton in the late 1990s is making right-wing hearts race just by not being an untrustworthy hero-mayor or a maverick former POW. Will he be their "Secondary Virgin"?

On the other side, nostalgia is setting in, too. After Al Gore floated through the Oscars like a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, he gets a valentine from Maureen Dowd in today’s New York Times.

With fourteen months to go, voters already seem to be tiring of talk about Hillary Clinton’s lovability and Mitt Romney’s too-perfect hair.

Can we all just take a long nap until January 20, 2009?


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

National Nightmare

An image persists. America is in one of those jerking jalopies in an old silent movie with speeded-up film, heading for a cliff.

In the driver’s seat, George Bush is smiling confidently, waving at passersby. Next to him, hair on end, Congress is frantically trying to make him stop, gesticulating wildly, trying to grab the steering wheel and yank his leg off the gas pedal.

The approach to the cliff seems endless, but it isn’t. We’re all in the back seat, holding our breath, but the vehicle keeps bouncing toward the edge.

Won’t somebody stop the projector and turn up the lights? Nobody is laughing.

President, Congress Agree on Middle East

Fifty years ago, after debating Presidential policies in the Middle East, Congress approved the Eisenhower Doctrine in March 1957.

The world was different then, yet the hostility and intrigue were there. But our troops were not dying in Iraq, and no one was trying to kill our Vice President in Afghanistan.

Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser was flirting with the Soviet Union and promoting radical Arab nationalism. The U.S. moved to stop him.

Our diplomacy was not brilliant then either. “The genius of you Americans,” Nassar told a CIA agent, “is that you never made clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves, which made us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them that we were missing.”

He called the Eisenhower Doctrine “one of the shrewdest mistakes ever made by a Great Power...”

The lesson for today is that we were involved even then in what came to be called “the clash of civilizations,” but we were fighting with words not blood, and we were flexible with our diplomacy.

Eisenhower liked to quote the philosopher George Santayana: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

Candidates' Screen Tests

CNN asked the '08 hopefuls to name their favorite movie and got some provocative answers.

John McCain picked “Viva Zapata,” Elia Kazan’s epic with Brando as a true-blue warrior for the people who is betrayed by weak, scheming politicians of all stripes. McCain was a teen-ager in 1952, when Kazan made it, many believe, as his excuse for giving up friends to Congressional Red hunters, which left him an outcast, not a hero.

Hillary Clinton’s choice was “Casablanca,” released five years before she was born, the classic tale of renouncing love for a political Higher Cause. Earlier, she had also cited “The Wizard of Oz” but reconsidered.

Rudy Giuliani was 28, a novice prosecutor, when “The Godfather” came out, a dark tale about the interweaving of crime and politics, with eerie echoes of his own family history.

What possessed John Edwards to choose “Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is one more puzzle about an unreadable man. He was 11 when Kubrick’s savage black comedy of nuclear insanity appeared, and what feelings it stirred in a proper, bland, ambitious Southern boy are hard to fathom.

Mitt Romney was 34, embarking on a career in management consulting after being a Mormon missionary, before he could have seen his favorite, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a hip, breakneck comedy-adventure far removed from his proper white-collar life.

Bill Richardson's choice of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," about banks robbers who go to South America but can't speak Spanish may be a reverse spin on his childhood in Mexico followed by a north-of-the-border life as a thoroughly Americanized politician.

Barack Obama’s preference is not known, which could mean (a) he is too deliberative to commit himself (b) too aware of what it might imply or (c) just not that interested in movies.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Iraq: Gone with the Wind

The man just won’t go away. Here is Joe Lieberman today, explaining why Congress is wrong to start a Civil War with the White House over Iraq.

You can’t read it online unless you pay the Wall Street Journal, so save your time and money:

With a new commander and more troops, we’re on the verge of making Baghdad snug and secure, but those bad people on Capitol Hill are just too ornery to give the new strategy a chance. If they really want to stop the war, why don’t they just stop the money? Because, Uncle Joe explains, the result would be “a spiral of ethnic cleansing and slaughter on a scale yet unseen in Iraq.”

Never mind that nobody has proposed cutting off funds, a move that Lieberman uses as a straw man to urge that Congress shut up and wait until the end of summer to see if Gen. Patraeus can good-cop Baghdad into some version of antebellum Tara.


There seem to be only three people in Washington who will not admit that Iraq is Gone with the Wind and, for the moment, the other two are letting good old faithful Uncle Joe carry the water for them.

Oscar Night: Coming of Age

On a night when Helen Mirren, 61 and Martin Scorcese, 64 got their statuettes, they looked like kids next to Alan Arkin, 72.

In the mid-1960s I had lunch with Arkin after he caused a ripple playing a Russian submarine commander in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”

A serious Broadway actor-director-composer, Arkin bristled when I suggested he should get a press agent: “Why? I don’t want to promote myself."

“To protect yourself,” I said. “You’re going to be famous.”

I was half-right. He became semi-famous in such movies as “Catch-22” and “The In-laws.” Last night deleted the “semi.” It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving septuagenarian.

Jumping Joe Lieberman

Time to check in on the horsehair holding the Damocles Sword over Democrats' control of the Senate:

Last month Joe Lieberman announced, "I'm open to supporting a Democrat, Republican or even an Independent, if there's a strong one" in 2008. "Stay tuned," he advised.

Last week he told Time Magazine there was "a very remote possibility" he might transfer his steadfast party loyalty to the Republicans.

But on Friday he informed Reuters, "I have no desire or intention to leave the Democratic Party."

Not to belabor the equine metaphor, but "My kingdom for a horse" or any part thereof that will carry this pompous poseur out of public sight.

A Thrilling Compliment

A weekend post read in its entirety, "Oscar Question: If Al Gore loses, will he demand a recount?"

This prompted a big-name blogger who shall remain nameless to send me an angry e-mail: "Stop reinforcing ancient right-wing spin."

Concerned that I might be offending the humor-impaired, I edited the "he" to "we." But the thrill of being attacked as "right-wing" lingers on. In eighty years, nobody has ever called me that.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Desperate Sorority Sisters

Exclusion has always bugged me, to the extent of amending Groucho’s dictum, “I don’t want to belong to any club that takes people like me as members” with “or anybody else for that matter.”

But the year’s booby prize for snoot goes to the sisters of Delta Zeta at Depauw University for ousting most of their members who didn’t look like they would grow up to be eligible for the cast of “Desperate Housewives.”

Nice going, young ladies. Now you can model some lovely long white robes with hoods and masks for us.

"Secondary Virginity" for '08

Good news, sinners! The Christian right has decreed the fallen can be born again pure as driven snow.

The new virginity is available not only to the carnally impaired but to politicians who may have parked their shoes under the wrong ideological bed.

At their summit meeting, the guardians of American morality--Dr. James Dobson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Grover Norquist--examined the Republican ’08 hopefuls and found them wanting.

McCain and Giuliani were dismissed out of hand as hopeless sluts, Romney as a waverer, and even Duncan Hunter, Brownback and Huckabee may have sinned in their hearts, as Jimmy Carter used to say.

It remained for Norquist, admittedly the least ecclesiastical of the brotherhood, to discover the road to redemption by citing a movement wherein young people who have lost their chastity take vows of abstinence.

“It’s called secondary virginity,“ Norquist explained, “It’s a big movement in high school and also available for politicians.”

If only Bill Clinton had known...

Larder Disorder: You Are What You Hoard

It started with maple syrup. One Sunday morning I found four jugs in our pantry and two more, partly filled, in the refrigerator.

Although we seldom eat pancakes, my wife had a reasonable explanation: “You wouldn’t want to make a hot stack and find nothing to put on it, would you?”

Since then, after researching friends’ pantries and freezers, I’ve identified a new psychological condition: larder disorder. We are not only what we eat, but what we hoard. Dread of deprivation reveals our fears and desires.

My study was triggered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Los Angeles, residents stocked up at supermarkets, which ran out of toilet paper. What was behind that particular panic?

Now Homeland Security is encouraging us to load shelves with canned food, bottled water and duct tape. Yet, aside from that, with 24-hour markets and online groceries, overstocking is off the wall.

My bugaboo is bread for breakfast, going back to a teen trauma when, on my first train trip, someone at 4 A.M. was selling coffee and nothing else, which left my empty stomach churning with caffeine and separation anxiety.

Ever since, I have needed starch to ward off the queasiness lurking in morning coffee and end up tossing out enough moldy crusts every year to make bread pudding for a battalion.

If you worry about naked hamburgers, the extra ketchup and pickle slices will eventually be used, but perishables can do you in. Anxiety about fresh fruit and vegetables leads to little flies on black bananas and a crisper full of rotting produce.

To offset larder disorder, Web sites will show you how to make a decent meal out of anything. Type in what you’ve got and download 214 recipes for capers.

Which reminds me: Is there any butter? I hate dry toast for breakfast.



Saturday, February 24, 2007

Must Reading

If 9/11 was a wake-up call, America pushed the snooze button and went back to sleep. After Katrina, we shook our heads and yawned. Now a 21st century Paul Revere is trying to shake us awake.

In his new book, “The Edge of Disaster,” Stephen Flynn is sounding the alarm and giving us cogent advice on how not to be caught napping--or dead--next time.

You won’t enjoy reading it, any more than you like paying insurance premiums. But Flynn makes an informed, persuasive case about our total lack of preparedness not only for terrorist attacks but natural disasters.

Note to George Bush and Karl Rove: If you’re still having that reading contest, put down “My Pet Goat” and start this one.

Oscar Question

If Al Gore loses, will we demand a recount?

Ralph Nader and Cary Grant

In his last years, Cary Grant would phone me once in a while. It started when I asked him to pose for a magazine cover with his daughter. He said yes, but his former wife said no. Grant and I discussed it and finally gave up.

After that, he would call every so often, and we found ourselves discussing his opinions of journalists, working mothers, parenting and anything else that crossed his mind.

After one of those pleasant conversations, it struck me: He missed being Cary Grant. In his eighties, long retired, he was on corporate boards and surely had a busy social life but, in these calls, he was the Cary Grant he once was, a great star, sought after by editors, the object of endless interest.

Over time, we all lose our faces and bodies to age, but what keeps us going, beyond family and friends, is our sense of ourselves that tells us we are still who we were, no matter how diminished.

Most of us can avoid mirrors, but what must it be like to confront on TV a younger self or see in the eyes of strangers the cliché question, “Didn’t you used to be...?”

So we have the sad spectacle of faded figures lending their former fame to execrable movies, embarrassing commercials and tacky TV roasts to reassure themselves they still matter. By comparison, Cary Grant’s phone calls were a modest and dignified way of filling the void.

Now we have 73-year-old Ralph Nader popping up everywhere to convince himself he is still the Ralph Nader he used to be, flirting last evening with Wolf Blitzer about running against Hillary Clinton, promoting his book about his family, still defending himself against charges that he gave us George Bush and, to Blitzer’s surprise, plugging his favorite airline while blasting all the others in supporting a passenger’s bill of rights.

Attention must be paid, to quote Mrs. Willy Loman. But Ralph Nader should fight the encroachments of age by getting a talk show, writing more books or babbling on a blog (like me). He should do anything he wants to get attention but stay the hell out of Presidential politics.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Vilsack for VP

In December I asked: "Can Competence Compete?" Apparently not.

The news that Tom Vilsack is dropping out of the '08 sweepstakes is saddening, but he should be on every other candidate's short list for VP. He was on Kerry's in 2004.

Vilsack's departure leaves my record as a political kingmaker unblemished. I urged Mario Cuomo to run in 1992. I must have an unerring instinct for people who are too decent for today's political process.

No Do-Overs

Now the Senate will try to stop payment on the blank check it wrote to invade Iraq over four years ago.

But the White House is holding it in the constitutional bank along with a hard core of party loyalists and a veto pen to block any withdrawals.

The only other option would be impeachment, but that too is hopeless for the same reasons plus the national trauma that would be involved and a glaring one named Cheney.

Bite the bullets and face facts: Congress can nibble away with restrictions in appropriations but can’t micro-manage this war and does not have the power to end it.

Both houses would do well to spend time on health care reform, Social Security, immigration and other pressing issues they can do something about. Voters may soon tire of their yelling at a deaf President about the war and ask what else they have done for them lately.

Face it: We should keep protesting but, unless George W. Bush has a visitation from a Higher Power, our aching national heart and our system of government will have to find other ways to survive the next two years.

Books for Ballots

Long ago a writer I knew wanted a new law: “Why don’t they license typewriters? You have to be tested to drive an automobile, and ideas are more dangerous than metal and rubber.”

His proposal is recalled by a New York Times piece yesterday on the flood of books by Presidential candidates.

Except for Obama’s best sellers, they are mostly extended bumper stickers, manifestoes of the vision and courage the authors may not always show in real life or memoirs that tug at our heartstrings to make us pull the right levers in the voting booth. At the very least, books prove they can read and write.

The Web has made my friend’s legislation moot, but he was right to mistrust what people put on paper. Memory is a too-forgiving editor, as I often remind myself with the Samuel Goldwyn story.

Goldwyn, the movie producer, had commissioned a script based on a classic novel. After months, one of Hollywood’s best writers gave up, telling him there was no way to make a movie out of it.

With a team of hacks, Goldwyn went ahead, made the picture and it bombed.

Years later, in a story conference, someone suggested the original writer for an assignment.

Goldwyn was adamant. “Not him. He was associated with one of my worst failures!”


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Groucho's Father

The most verbal of the Marx Brothers once wrote in McCalls about their father:

"The notion that Pop was a tailor was an opinion held only by him. He refused to use a tape measure, which he insisted was pure swank and utter nonsense. It might be all right for an undertaker, but not for a tailor with the unerring eye of an eagle.

"He boasted he could size up a man by just looking at him. The results were about as accurate as Al Capone's tax returns.

"Our neighborhood was full of Pop's customers, easily recognizable by one trouser leg shorter than the other or coat collars undecided where to rest.

"My father never had the same customer twice, which meant being constantly on the prowl for new business. As our neighborhood became populated with men in misfit clothing, he had to find locations where his reputation had not preceded him.

"He was forced to go further and further to snare new victims. Many weeks his carfare was larger than his income."

Luckily for us, Groucho's raw material was words, not cloth, and his lopsided creations were intentional, to our great benefit.

The Truth About Lying

My work as a magazine editor often took me to Washington and Hollywood, two places where, if you ask people the time of day, you can see them trying to figure out what time you would like it to be.

So when David Geffen, Beverly Hills mogul, calls Hillary and Bill Clinton of D.C. liars, he may simply be stating the obvious.

But we are talking here of two professions in which people have raised lying to a fine art, where words seldom visit brains before going straight from the id to the mouth. To mix biological metaphors, movie people and politicians lie from the heart.

Geffen, in his blunt way, was echoing the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. Senator and Harvard professor. An odd couple, but on this subject, there is barely one degree of separation between them.

Geffen’s remark that “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling” set off a mudfight. Clinton’s Hollywood supporters demanded Obama apologize and Obama wondered why he should be responsible for what Geffen said.

If this raises a sensitive issue for the Clintons, Geffen did not invent it.

Moynihan, whom Hillary eventually replaced, was deeply troubled during Bill Clinton’s Senate trial. He voted against impeachment but backed censuring him.

“There’s a sort of absence of character which has been the quality of this administration,” he told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin.

The sight of Hillary supporters trying to drag Barack into her perceived problem does not contradict Moynihan.

So welcome to the big leagues, Senator Obama. When they throw high, hard curves at you, keep keeping your head down.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Screen Tests for '08

Hollywood never liked George Bush, even before he produced the “Ishtar” of American wars.

Now the movie crowd is beside itself, buzzing around Oscar candidates for ’08. The choices are delicious.

Will it be the umpteenth remake of “A Star is Born” with Barack Obama gender-bending the Streisand-Judy Garland role?

How about “Million Dollar Baby” with Hillary Clinton? But the ending of that one was a downer.

Then there’s “Cinderella Man” with Al Gore. With a nomination this year, he’s box-office again. Remember how Katharine Hepburn overcame her early bombs.

Rudy Giuliani could be another “Lethal Weapon,” but then again, maybe not.

Perhaps, after all the cynicism, it’s time to reach way back to Frank Capra. An update of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? Tom Vilsack is out in the boondocks auditioning for the part.

Give the man a screen test. America may be ready for a fresh face.


H.M.O.'s Secret of Success

Health care coverage is shaping up as the hot-button domestic issue for ’08. To help Presidential candidates of both parties understand what they are up against, herewith a confidential memo provided by a public-spirited insurance company insider:

TO: Claims Prevention Department

FROM: President, H.M.O

Bills are being processed and paid without full use of our avoidance procedures. Such negligence impacts your company’s bottom line, let me review our guidelines:

1. Use the response “require more information from physician” to its full extent. Some providers fill in code numbers, diagnoses and dates of treatment. But who are these people? Can we trust them with the health of our insured not knowing when and where they went to medical school, how long they have been practicing, and whether they rent or own their Lexuses?

2. Handle phone queries properly. Quick answers deprive members of full participation in their care. For the persistent, employ your half-hour hold capability and, if that fails, tell them the computer is down and promise to call back. That will keep them close to their phones and away from doctors’ offices.

3. Don’t confuse claimants with data overload. Just indicate service is not covered because of a,b,c,d,z or some combination. Our forms make definitions of a,b,c,d,z easily comprehensible with the aid of a magnifying glass and legal dictionary.

4. Use “pre-existing condition” as a disqualification. If enrollees are treated for back pain or headaches, assume they had backs and heads before signing up. Are we to pay for problems that should have been treated in the past?

5. When all else fails, deny reimbursement with “This claim has been previously considered.” By the time the patient, physician, laboratory and hospital check with one another, no one will be sure who sent or received what. We should not pay twice or, better yet, once.

We will soon have new tools to aid in your work. A revised schedule of “customary fees” will reflect the global economy by factoring in provider charges of emerging nations. And our accountants are number-crunching the promising concept of a receding deductible.

Our new non-discriminatory policy of hiring applicants regardless of IQ, education or Attention Deficit Disorder will insure better performance in the future. Remember: A claim denied or delayed is a drop of lifeblood to the health of our organization.




Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Told You

Tonight's headline: Blair to Withdraw Some Troops from Iraq

Posted 1/18/07: Tony Blair's Vanishing Act

More Groucho

Several times a year, as editor of McCalls, I would send Mr. Marx a box of his favorite cigars, with a note asking him to write something for us.

He always responded, but I could never find a way to make an article out of "Thanks for the cigars, Groucho."

Rove v. Murtha

As John Murtha tries to set limits in Iraq, Karl Rove will be unleashing his rabid attack dogs to swift-boat the former Marine.

Rove’s method is political assassination: Don’t debate issues, destroy opponents. Murtha is only the latest on his hit list. In 2004, John McCain, John Kerry and triple amputee Senator Max Cleland were attacked with distortions and lies by an Administration of draft evaders turning men who suffered for their country into objects of suspicion and scorn.

When Rove leaves, the White House will have to be fumigated. Carrier of the worst Washington plague since Joe McCarthy, Rove is even more pernicious. The Wisconsin Senator spread fear and suspicion, the man called Bush’s Brain is deadlier.

In the shadows of the Scooter Libby trial, his fingerprints are all over the outing of Joe Wilson’s wife, but casual defamation is the least of Rove’s weapons.

Nixon brought shadowy plumbers and tricksters into the fringes of his White House. Bush has taken it further, putting the man he calls “the architect” into the heart of the Oval Office.

Those with the stomach for a fuller picture of the President’s chief of slime can start with Wikipedia and follow the links through a lifetime of rooting through opponents’ garbage, putting out fake fliers in their names, inventing new ways to slander and libel them.

Rove has outdone Joe McCarthy in damaging America. What’s needed is a latter-day Joe Welch to confront him and ask, “Have you no sense of decency at long last?”

Last summer, when Rove accused Democrats of cutting and running, Murtha noted he was “in his air-conditioned office on his big, fat backside saying stay the course. That’s not a plan...that’s a political statement.”

Not vintage Joe Welch, but it’s a start.

Monday, February 19, 2007

You Don't Have to Read This

Groucho stories are like peanuts. It's impossible to stop with just one.

In the 1930s, before air travel, in the Los Angeles train station, he ran into Oscar Levant, the melancholic pianist turned movie actor, just arriving after the three-day trip from New York, worn out, wrinkled and near-suicidal.

"Oscar," Groucho told him, "you look awful. Why don't you come out to my house for drinks, dinner and a dip in the pool?"

"That sounds wonderful," Levant said as Groucho glided away. "Where do you live?"

Over his shoulder as he disappeared, Groucho answered, "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Half-Way Measures

In his New York Times blog, Dick Cavett tells a Groucho Marx story about the swimming pool at a restricted country club.

“My daughter’s only half-Jewish,” Groucho said. “Can she go in up to her waist?”

Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President in 1964, must have been stealing from The Master when he told of asking an Arizona golf club, “Can I play nine holes? I’m only half-Jewish.”

In any case, it may or may not have been Groucho who first said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that takes people like me as members.”

American Disconnect

My social life is not what it used to be, so let me put this as a question: Is America, as President Bush and his apologists keep telling us, really at war?

The last time I was in a room with a group of suburban, mostly professional people, nobody was talking about Iraq or Washington, for that matter.

Last week’s Congressional disgrace was in the news, but did constituents care? Were their “public servants” hearing from them? If they were, could so many Republicans in “the people’s House” have kept parroting their absurd party line?

During Vietnam, there were massive protests, campus riots and people setting themselves on fire in front of the Pentagon: body rhetoric. Now those who care are venting on the web: words.

Vietnam, fought by draftees, was touching almost every family. Iraq, for most Americans, is being waged by some anonymous, volunteer “them.” Yet the blood is just as real.

Nobody would want that public turmoil again but, particularly on a day when we commemorate our patriotic past, the silence is eerie.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tony Snow Job

One thing President Bush has done right is upgrading his Press Secretary, from the class nerd (Ari Fleischer) and the clod who couldn’t get a date to the prom (Scott McClellan) to the cool guy on campus, the Hugh Grant of the Bridget Jones movies.

On Meet the Press today, Tony Snow was smooth-talking to explain how the top leaders in Iran are and aren’t behind the Baghdad violence, why Bush welcomes Congress’ input but won’t pay attention to it, that Iraq was a good idea but war is unpredictable.

He made Tim Russert look positively coarse.

In the last century, White House spokespeople tended toward rough-and-gruff ex-journalists like Eisenhower’s Jim Hagerty and JFK’s Pierre Salinger, a great guy now remembered for being the victim of an early web hoax--that the Navy had accidentally shot down an American airliner in 1996.

Well-tailored, wised-up Tony Snow is much too sophisticated to fall for something like that. The former Fox News flunky is better at spinning out misinformation than his current boss, just what America needs when we don’t know whether we’re coming or going in Iraq.

Is Bill Maher Jumping the Shark?

On his HBO season premiere this weekend, America’s Smirker-in-Chief looked lost.

Bill Maher, who can be fall-down funny offending everyone, lobbed softballs at John Edwards and actually murmured praise while passing up the chance to ask about his dustup with the Catholic League over two bloggers forced to leave his Presidential campaign.

Too sharp to have overlooked it, did Maher, who sniffs out everyone else’s selling out, agree not to ask as the price of getting Edwards to appear?

The soporific panel consisted of a bland black Republican, a deposed CEO plugging a book and a TV comic repeating a lame joke about not offending anyone until he gets his citizenship papers.

New Rules, Bill: If you want to kill the audience, forget your tired rants against Religion and keep after the Dark Forces in Washington who are killing our freedoms and our young people in Iraq.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Celebritydom: Marilyn to Anna Nicole

“Why,” Marilyn Monroe asked half a century ago, “do they print things about me that aren’t true?”

“Because,” I answered, “pictures of you sell magazines and newspapers and, when there’s no excuse, they’ll use rumors and gossip, anything they can get.”

I was interviewing her at a crucial point in her life, March 1955, between her marriages to two cultural icons, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, when she had moved to New York to study at the Actor’s Studio.

Marilyn died in 1962 at the age of 36. Thirty years later, a blonde model, Anna Nicole Smith, posed nude for Playboy Magazine, which Hugh Hefner had started in 1953 by buying nude calendar photos of Marilyn.

Ms. Smith was, of course, tagged the “new Marilyn Monroe” and launched on a celebrity career, hampered by a lack of any discernible talent.

Performing at a Houston club, the 26-year-old stripper met 89-year-old billionaire, J. Howard Marshall, who married her and died thirteen months later.

Why am I telling you all this, when Anna Nicole Smith’s own death is now a flood of 24/7 media sewage about conflict over the cause, the paternity of her daughter (and the child’s inheritance) and custody of Ms. Smith’s cadaver?

This is not to harrumph about the good old days, when fame required something more than being well-known for well-knownness, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, but to get back to the subject of authenticity in public life I wrote about in “The X Factor for ’08.”

Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, whose lives intersected, were, for better or worse, substantial people, unlike today’s mostly cardboard Presidential candidates and the shameless reality-show Paris Hilton-Donald Trump fame whores who pollute our consciousness today.

“Don’t make me into a joke,” Marilyn had pleaded in her last interview. With Anna Nicole Smith, is there any other choice?



Friday, February 16, 2007

Where Have All the Grownups Gone?

The news this week--mature men and women orating like losers in a high-school elocution contest--is too much to bear.

In the House “debate” on a non-binding resolution and the Senate debate on whether to debate, our form of government is enduring the worst humiliation in memory.

Add to the Bush Administration’s long list of achievements, beyond a disastrous war and the erosion of our liberties, the reduction of our legislative branch to futility and impotence.

Even the comic relief of John Boehner’s tears is not enough to offset his loyalists’ flapdoodle about “victory” and the Democrats’ despair over groping for new ways to restate the obvious.

Do their mothers know what they do for a living?

Bashful Blogtogenarian

As any casual reader must know, my modesty is exceeded only by my technological brilliance.

So herewith, in my ninetieth post, for any reader with a craving to know more about me than any sane person would want to, my first attempt at an embedded link from the Stamford (CT) Advocate 2/15/07. If it doesn't work, you're on your own

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Past Forward

George Bush and Dick Cheney have made elder statesmen out of Oliver North and John Dean.

The ghosts of Iran-Contra and Watergate can now be seen regularly on cable TV, telling us where we’re going wrong in Iraq and elsewhere.

Oliver North, who never before saw a military action he didn’t like, is criticizing the Surge on Fox TV and telling us “nearly all” the troops don’t want it. As a Reagan aide in the 1980s, he was caught lying to Congress about selling missiles to Iran and using the money to buy weapons to fight the Nicaraguan Contras.

Dean, who was Nixon’s White House lawyer and went to prison for the Watergate coverup, is now an articulate critic of this “authoritarian” Administration with a book titled “Conservatives Without Conscience.”

When his former deputy, Fred Fielding, was recently appointed White House counsel, Dean called him a fine lawyer but noted “he’s been sipping some of the Kool-Aid lately so I’m not sure how he’s going to come out on this.”

Everybody, it seems, learns something from past mistakes except you-know-who.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

For Republicans, Right Is Wrong

In the week of Lincoln’s birthday and valentines, the minority party frontrunners are puckering up to the wrong electoral backside.

Like generals fighting the last war, they don’t realize that George Bush and Karl Rove may have worn out, at least for now, the politics of hatred and division. By any measure, in 2006 Democrats closed “the God Gap” among evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics while widening their lead elsewhere.

Still, here are Giuliani and McCain lurching rightward on the flat-earth theory that The Base is vital to winning, if not the 2008 election, at least the nomination.

Unless they believe that Sam Brownback, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee can revitalize the disheartened Bush-Rove constituency, their contortions on social issues could be damaging them more with traditional Republicans and Independents than winning over right-wing diehards.

After eight years of poisonous polarization, it’s more than the war, it’s the ultra-partisan stupidity that started it and won’t let it stop. America is ready for something else, maybe not sweetness and light, but a little sense and civility could go a long way.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Romney Legacy

Now that Mitt Romney has gone back to his ancestoral home in Michigan to make his declaration, it seems only fair to recall what the former Republican Governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, said about his father's 1968 somewhat erratic campaign for the same position:

"Watching George Romney run for the Presidency is like watching a duck try to make love to a football."

My memory is not what it used to be. Governor Rhodes may not have said "make love."

For the VP: Forgive Me, Rodgers and Hart

Our funny valentine,
Sweet comic valentine,
You make us smile with our heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
Yet you're our favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?

Are you always in a pique?
Did you find the WMD you seek?
When you see a little beak, should we dart?

Why does your smile look like a glare?
When Bush calls, do you care?
Does everything you say have to be so tart?

Will you ever leave us be?
Is your term till eternity?
Can we ever be free, even when we part?

But don't change a hair for us
Not if you care for us
Stay, little valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine's
Each day is Valentine's Day


Dreamy!

Sleeping on the job is good for you. CBS Evening News reports a study showing after-lunch naps can reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

As a lifelong midday napper, I could have told them that. After half an hour on the couch, I would bounce up with brilliant ideas for articles, catchy cover lines and ways to solve messy office problems. Some of them even worked.

Now companies (CBS showed an ad agency) are encouraging high-tech naps in sleeping pods and reaping rewards in creativity.

Somebody should wake up our Congressmen and tell them. They might dream up a way to get us out of Iraq...

No, wait. Let me take a nap and come up with a better punchline.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The X Factor for '08

During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy said he sometimes felt sorry for Richard Nixon: “It must be hard getting up every morning trying to decide who you’re going to be that day.”

That could be the X Factor for 2008. Since Kennedy, few politicians have seemed so comfortable in their own skins. Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo come to mind, but Reagan was an actor and Cuomo refused to go through the political meat grinder in 1992.

Next year, after the longest campaign ever, voters will be starved for authenticity, the sense of a real person behind all the packaging.

Thus far, prospects are poor.

In fifteen years, has anyone seen Hillary Clinton in an uncalculated public moment?

Will John McCain stop reinventing himself before or after his party’s primaries?

What, if anything, is behind John Edwards’ eager-to-please smile?

When will Mitt Romney stop tripping over his past positions?

Who will emerge as the real Rudy Giuliani from his purloined playbook? Even this early, he is repudiating versions of his former self.

As voters puzzle over the meaning of such ink-blot candidates, will they start yearning for someone who is actually there for them to see?

That desire is part of what’s behind Obama’s early surge, but even he had to tell Tim Russert with a worried smile that his wife and friends think he’s still there behind all the hype. Can he stay? On 60 Minutes last night, he said the “attempt to airbrush your life...is exhausting.”

Earnest men like Dennis Kucinich and Tom Vilsack are trying, without much luck, to be seen and heard.

In our age of super-blather, we have time for a long, hard look at the next President in debates that go beyond catch phrases and gotchas.

We can take clues from “Honest Abe,” everybody’s favorite President this month. (Obama steeped his announcement in a Lincolnesque aura, and Rudy Giuliani in New Hampshire has been comparing the Great Emancipator with, no joke, George W. Bush.)

In 2008, 150 years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates helped decide the 1860 Presidential election, we can create their equivalent for our era. Lincoln and Stephen Douglas went at it seven times for four hours each so voters could see the men behind the rhetoric.

We can insist that today’s contenders stop conning us and confront one another in comparable give-and-take.

Or will we just settle for a rerun of those “American Idol” campaigns that spewed out George W. Bush?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Iraq: The Clash of Cliches

Politics stops at the water’s edge.

Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Bush’s opponents are rats deserting a sinking ship.

Bush’s supporters are lemmings rushing off a cliff.

Pick any platitude from any era, and somebody in Congress is uttering some variation of it right now while evading the hard work of figuring out how to stop the bloodshed in Iraq.

As Mike Nichols and Elaine May used to say in their nightclub act: “It’s really a moral problem.” “Yes, and moral problems are so much more interesting than real problems.”

But they weren't being paid to solve real problems. These jokers are.

Pillorying Hillary

This weekend in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton again evades a yes or no answer to whether her 2002 vote to go to war was a mistake.

As a constituent then, I wrote, begging her: “Don’t give President Bush a blank check to invade Iraq.” I got back a canned letter, with a tortured rationale for the vote she eventually cast.

But enough is enough. Whatever her reasons to avoid the word “mistake,” the spectacle of her now being pilloried by John Edwards et al, who voted the same way, is disgusting.

As the first woman with a real chance to occupy the Oval Office, she is under pressure to seem as resolute as, say, George Bush. She is making a tactical mistake in not uttering mistake, but her reasons are understandable. What matters now is how forceful she will be in ending all this needless bloodshed.

Her detractors seem to be in the same league as those who wanted John F. Kennedy to assure them he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Pope. They should find subtler ways to express their prejudice.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dial M for Magic

Many Americans of a certain age (mine) would confer media knighthood on Ted Turner for giving us back our youth with those wonderful old movies on TCM.

That bizarre thought is prompted by news this week of another kind of immortality for an old friend, Frederick Knott, who wrote one of the best thrillers of all time, “Dial M for Murder.”

Knott was a spare writer but meticulous plotter, and now his notes, sketches and production papers are on view at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, CT, donated by his widow, the actress Ann Hillary.

A shy, almost reclusive man whose work reflected intellectual rigor, wit and insight, his passing in 2002 was a reminder of what is long gone from most of today’s movies. A case in painful point was a shallow, glossy remake of “Dial M” in 1998 with none of Hitchcock’s, or Knott’s, droll quality.

But no matter--thanks to Turner, we can still wallow with Grace Kelly in the 1954 original or Audrey Hepburn in Knott’s equally stunning “Wait Until Dark” of 1967.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Sick

Yeah, yeah, irresistible: A lovesick astronaut in diapers drives 900 miles...etc. etc ad nauseum.

But as inevitable as this week’s media smirkfest over Lisa Novak was, it raises a teeny question: Did any of us go into journalism planning to be as insensitive as politicians or witless as stand-up comics?

In my time, mental illness was sad. It still is, even if we coat it with hilarious headlines and sanctimonious questions about NASA’s screening standards.

Vilsack Revisited

At this stage of the 1976 and 1992 elections, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were little-known governors of small states with infinitesimal rankings in the Presidential polls.

That’s the slim reed to which Tom Vilsack’s 2008 hopes are lashed as the just-retired governor of Iowa makes his way, in media dimness, toward next year’s primaries.

“I’m not a rock star,” he tells you, ‘but I am rock-solid.”

Since we saw him in December, he has raised over $1.1 from admirers including Warren Buffet, made a solid impression at the Democrats’ meeting last weekend as the only candidate to call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and will soon unveil an energy plan calling for a 75 percent reduction from emissions levels of 2000.

In a small room with half a dozen suburban reporters last evening, Vilsack continued to talk sense without notes (as he did last weekend to Howard Dean’s astonishment).

“We’re at the American Idol stage of the campaign,” he told them, but is confident that voters will want answers rather than slogans while talking earnestly and persuasively of his conversation with the Prime Minister of India about the link between literacy and world hunger.

Of course, there are differences between 1992 and 2008, but if Tom Vilsack fails to emulate her husband, “the Comeback Kid,” Hillary Clinton could do a lot worse in picking a running mate to balance her own strengths.

Bush's Other Grandfather

On the Daily Show last night, Ralph Nader told Jon Stewart how his mother, at a reception, refused to release the President’s grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, from a handshake until he promised to look into a civic problem that was bothering her.

If this is Bush Family History Month, I should tell my story about George W’s other grandfather.

In 1953, I went to work as a junior editor for his mother's father, Marvin Pierce, who was president of the McCall Corporation, a publishing and printing company with several thousand employees.

Soon after I arrived, an elderly secretary edged me into a corner. "You're not the first Jew to work here," she said, "only the first one they know about." Years earlier, she had changed her name to get under the radar.

The company had no personnel department, but hiring was vetted by Marvin Pierce's secretary, a formidable woman named Emily Chestnutt, who grilled publishers and editors about the pedigrees of applicants.

A year later, I told a young woman I knew about a staff opening. All went well until her resume reached Ms. Chestnutt. She called Wade Nichols, the editor, to say she was worried about someone named Dorothy Weichel (suspiciously ethnic) who had worked for a trade union (politically dubious) and the United World Federalists (downright Un-American).

Nichols, who had done who-knows-what to get me on the payroll, somehow charmed Ms. Chestnutt into letting him hire Dorothy. Neither knew that her family was suburban Boston Protestant, her mother eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution and the First Families of Virginia .

Marvin Pierce was a genial man with a year-round golf course tan who was always pleasant and approved two promotions for me in the following years. (Redbook had won a national award for opposing McCarthyism.)

When Dorothy, the suspect DAR daughter, and I decided to marry, he even came to our office engagement party.

Before offering a toast, he asked the bride-to-be about her plans. She told him she would quit her job and stay home to take care of me.

Right then and there, George W. Bush’s grandfather made a pre-Feminist joke.

“Why,” he asked, “doesn’t he quit his job and stay home to take care of you?”

Everybody laughed.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Used-War Salesmen

After all those high-tech commercials on the Super Bowl, the U.S. Senate this week is looking like an old-fashioned car lot with politicians lobbing buzz words at us--bipartisan, non-binding, compromise, deadlock, procedural, debate—-in their usual bait-and-switch games.

McCain, Lieberman and McConnell et al are still trying to palm off Bush’s repainted Baghdad jalopy on more than seventy percent of voters who aren’t buying.

Reid, Warner, Levin et al keep kicking the tires but can’t get themselves to stop giving him gas money.

Only Feingold and Byrd are muttering about getting the damn thing off the road.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis are seeing a dismal demonstration of the shiny new vehicle we promised them.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Comic Relief

The man who elected George Bush is thinking of running in '08.

No, not Karl Rove, who may be too busy with legal issues arising out of a national security breach.

But his best friend, Ralph Nader, tells CNN he may be available if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, whom he gallantly describes as "a flatterer and a panderer."

Who does he have in mind for us this time? Sam Brownback?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hillary vs. Bill Redux

Mrs. Clinton must be having flashes of déjà vu.

Just as she is relaxed enough to make jokes about dealing with bad boys, here comes a bargain-basement Bill Clinton 1992 look-alike nipping at her heels.

John Edwards has clearly read their playbook for beating the Bushes. His “Meet the Press” interview yesterday on Super Bowl Sunday echoed the Clintons on “60 Minutes” after the game fifteen years ago.

Both featured slippery mea culpas. “I have acknowledged wrongdoing,” Bill said then. “I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage” as he denied a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers.

Yesterday Edwards used the word “wrong” a dozen times about his 2002 vote on Iraq, but whined that Bush never admits being wrong. Asked about standing by it a year and a half later, he cited pressures of the 2004 race and his wife’s breast cancer while complaining Hillary has still not admitted she was wrong and is “morally bound” to say so or defend her vote.

Between them, Bill Clinton and Bush 43 may have exhausted our patience for the campaign smarm of polite-Southern-boys-you-can-bring-home-to-your-family.

Edwards talks about trust and leadership while updating Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid” with talk of “the two Americas” and a convoluted universal health care plan.

Joe Biden, in a bad week of commenting on candidates, was on the money when he said, “I don’t think John Edwards knows what he’s talking about” on Iraq. “All this stuff is just like so much Fluffernutter out there.”

Saturday, February 03, 2007

2008: A Modest Proposal*

Of the many worthies seeking national leadership, one stands apart from the rest.

In these parlous times, with 30 per cent of the populace firmly behind him, his experience in presiding over wars and natural disasters is unmatched.

All and sundry know him as a uniter, not a divider, a decider who does not waver under pressure, a resolute commander who consults a Higher Power rather than mere mortals on life-and-death decisions.

Unlike some, he will never negotiate with our enemies, who are legion. He will never compromise with the Forces of Evil that besiege us. He will never hesitate to pronounce the word “nuclear.”

A sterling judge of character, he surrounds himself with the finest minds of his acquaintance. (A pox on that rapscallion, B. Maher, for japing that he nominated his cleaning lady for the Supreme Court!)

Fellow citizens, let us spare yourselves 22 months of political twaddle by lesser figures and concentrate on repealing the Twenty-Second Amendment to keep at the helm the man for our time who will lead us to new heights of moral glory, George Walker Bush!

*Note to the satire-impaired: Title from Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay on a solution to the Irish Famine: eating their babies.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Menotti on Art and Commerce

Sixty years ago, Gian Carlo Menotti, composer of Pulitzer Prize operas and founder of the Spoleto Music Festival, who died this week at 95, came to the City College of New York to talk to a student body of second-generation European immigrants.

In lilting but imperfect English, he told of the struggles of a young artist to make his way in a commercial world.

During the question period, someone asked: "Why don't you go to Hollywood, write music for a few movies and make enough money to do your serious work for years?"

Menotti smiled. "Ah, yes," he said. "Your family is hungry, so send your sister out on the streets for a while. But when she come back, she never be the same."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Cheney Charm Offensive

Karl Rove's White House may be more devious than we know.

Reading about their high-school machinations in the Scooter Libby trial raises a question: Why is Cheney out drawing so much media fire that there is talk of impeaching him rather than Bush?

Mark Shields of PBS’ News Hour and I share admiration for Jim Rhodes, a Republican governor of Ohio in the 1960s and 70s, a politician par excellence.

Rhodes had a staff member everybody hated. When supporters urged getting rid of him, Rhodes refused: “Not on your life, never take the punching bag out of the gym.”

If Cheney’s current assignment is to make Bush look lovable, he’s doing a great job at it.