Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Obama Boom: He May Be Too Mature

To older ears, Barack Obama’s triumphal book tour with “The Audacity of Hope” has obvious echoes of John F. Kennedy and “Profiles in Courage.”

If anything, Obama in his forties is behind schedule. Kennedy wrote his book and entered the Senate in his thirties.

But half a century later, maturity comes in a different context. Obama’s cover stories and TV interviews are being seen against a background of campaign attack ads, the raw sewage of lies and slander that end with a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth face, beaming “I’m Joe Moron and I approve this garbage.”

To see Obama actually thinking and trying to be truthful on screen is almost shocking. When Tim Russert confronted him on “Meet the Press” with a year-old clip denying Presidential aspirations, he simply said that now he is thinking about it.

This kind of candor will inevitably be fodder for charges of immature flip-flopping, but two years from now, voters may be ready for a little truth-telling.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Making a Scene

In the 1982 movie “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman in drag is auditioning for a soap opera when the producer asks the cameraman, “I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?”

With no hesitation, he answers, ”How do you feel about Cleveland?”

That was the high point of my friend Leslie Goldman’s acting career—in truth, it was all of it. He was still getting small royalty checks at his death earlier this year. The only other remains of decades on film sets, in overheated halls and freezing streets are glimpses of him as human scenery in hundreds of movies.

You won’t find his name in a search of the Internet Movie Data Base, and only if you Google down deep will you learn he once flashed across the tube in judges’ robes for an ancient “Law and Order.”

As sons of immigrants, Les and I spent childhood in dark movie houses, watching how people behaved and talked in places where the ways of our parents would never do. The movies taught us how to be American.

After World War II, he went to law school, passed the bar but never practiced. It was only on movie sets doing extra work after joining the Screen Actors Guild that he found his calling in the world that had enchanted us as kids.

Once, when I asked if there wasn’t a better way of spending his days and nights than sipping stale coffee and schmoozing for a small check and no credit, he answered with that old punchline, “What? And give up show business?”

He was still doing it well into his seventies, sharing a joke with Jack Nicholson here, teasing Kim Basinger there while the lights and cameras were being moved. When the film was ready to roll, he moved back, staying in character and out of the spotlight. In the era of no-shame reality shows, Les made an art of fading into the background.

Now, on sleepless nights, I can always find him in an old movie, part of a crowd in “9½ Weeks” or “Cotton Club” or, my favorite, behind a deli counter in “When Harry Met Sally” while Meg Ryan shows Billy Crystal how women fake an orgasm.

With Meg moaning and customers staring, the camera keeps panning and, in the background, there is Les in a long white apron ignoring the hubbub and solemnly slicing salami, never looking up—-as always, staying in character, keeping it real, making the scene work.

He never gave up show business.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Time to Go

Two weeks before the election, President Bush tells us he's working on a "timetable" for getting out of the Iraq mess, but his is a real one not "artificial" like that of his critics.
Four years ago, he had a "road map" for peace in the Middle East.
Next month and two years from now, the voters may have their own travel plans for the Congress and White House that got us started on a six-year bad trip in that part of the world.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Obama's New Best Friend

The New York Times’ conservative Deep Thinker, David Brooks,
is in love. His October 19th column, “Run, Barack, Run” is a valentine
to the Democrats’ multiethnic White Hope of the future. That may
loosely translate as “Anybody but Hillary.”
Brooks, who has made an art form out of missing the point, wants
Obama to go for it in 2008 because “a president who brings a deliberative
style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it.”
Too bad Brooks didn’t pass that advice on to Bush when he was
supporting W’s decision to go into Iraq.

October Surprise

“I’ m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”
That line, from a 30-year-old movie written by my high-school classmate, Paddy Chayevsky, looks like the key to this election. In “Network,” it was a loony anchorman who inspired people to open their windows and yell. This year, Diebold willing, voters will vent their rage in the booth and give Democrats control of both houses.
As the scene shifts from Ted Turner’s old movie channel to his other brainchild, CNN, newly elected Dems may want to recall how “Network” ends. When the public doesn’t get what it wants, the hero get killed on camera.

Is Lou Dobbs Running for Something?

When a ubiquitous Big Name comes out with a book defending The Middle Class (today, anyone with TV), starts speechifying against “politicians” and shows up to trade mots with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, the Memory Bank pops out Ross Perot.

Terrific, but one teeny problem: Lou Dobbs is a prime-time news anchor for CNN. Holy Cronkite! While The New York Times crucifies reporter Linda Greenhouse for a few off-the-cuff comments, Dobbs is opinionating everywhere about everything, without a peep from CNN.

If Dobbs is really planning to run for whatever, he’ll have to defend himself as a flip-flopper. A long-time Republican, defender of Big Business, business-news entrepreneur himself, he is now a born-again populist, with just trace of anti-immigration racism, but some may remember when he left CNN in 2000 in a huff after the network president wanted to cut away to live coverage of President Bill Clinton consoling parents at Columbine, which Dobbs argued was not newsworthy.

Myself, I prefer looking at Katie Couric on her surprisingly innovative new CBS gig to wincing at Dobbs’ smirks while he delivers the evening news.

What's Lee Hamilton Running For?

Nothing, and that’s what makes it news. After serving as co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, former Congressman Hamilton is doing the same on the Iraq Study Group, which after Election Day may finally provide some semblance of bi-partisan exit strategy.

Watching Hamilton chair the House’s Iran-Contra hearings a quarter of a century ago, it struck me he should run for President in 1988.

It struck others, too, but the boomlet soon ended. “He told them he didn’t want to do it,” his aide announced, “he didn’t want to look into it, he just wants to keep doing what he’s doing.” The New York Times termed it “a standard of modesty believed to be extinct on Capitol Hill.”

Hamilton had skewered Ollie North, Bush pere and Reagan himself with a flat-out “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” simplicity:

“Policy was driven by a series of lies...A few do not know what is better for the American people than the people themselves.”

Whatever Hamilton and the Bush family rabbi James Baker recommend on Iraq, a howl from the conspiracy-minded left will claim that Hamilton shied away from Reagan’s impeachment, a decision he made “for the good of the country” to avert a disaster so soon after Nixon’s exit, and that he is Bush’s token Democrat as a reward.

It says something about politics today if integrity and even-handedness can only be seen as selling out.

The Buck Stops Where?

If he were alive, John F. Kennedy would be turning 90 next May. As an elder statesman, he could tell today’s politicians of both parties a lot about taking responsibility for their actions.

Dennis Hastert proclaims “The buck stops here” (pace Harry Truman) while ducking blame for an embarrassment on his watch.

George W. Bush and his Cabinet, in a “State of Denial,” try to persuade Americans that blunders in Iraq make them safer from terrorism.

Joe Lieberman asks voters to forget his cheerleading for the war.

President Bush, Speaker Hastert and Senator Lieberman, who cites President Kennedy as his inspiration for seeking office, should take another look at Kennedy’s experience.

Above all, he admitted mistakes, and the nation profited from his willingness to learn and grow in office.

Despite misgivings about the advice of the CIA and military, Kennedy went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after being told we would be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?) and withdrew after realizing he had been misled, accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors,” he told the media afterward. “As a wise man once said, ‘An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors, and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war, JFK put his Bay of Pigs lesson to use by overruling “experts” who wanted to bomb or invade Cubs and trusting his own judgment.

With hard evidence of missiles 90 miles from our shores, he rejected advice for an air strike or invasion, lined up support from the United Nations, gave the Russians every chance to back down and, when they did, ordered that there be no gloating about victory. No CIA “slam dunk,” “Mission Accomplished” or “Bring it on!”

If Kennedy were alive, his advice for today’s politicians about human fallibility might not differ much from what he told me in an interview a few weeks before Dallas. The talk had turned to the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.”

In controlling our destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well--but only reasonably well.“