Monday, December 30, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" review

I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . . (From Daniel Ellsberg’s TV interview with Walter Cronkite)

I was in college majoring in journalism, taking a Media Law class when I learned about the Pentagon Papers case – one of the most important cases ever decided by the Supreme Court. Tricky Dick Nixon tried to suppress publication of leaked documents about the Vietnam War, but fortunately the high court ruled in favor of the Constitution.

The 40th anniversary of the case brought the Pentagon Papers in the news again. At long last, the government has declassified the entire collection – more than 7,000 documents telling the dirty truth about how four U.S. presidents helped create a war that needlessly ended 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives.

Daniel Ellsberg, a defense dept. analyst, leaked the Top Secret documents to the press. The court ruled against prior restraint, saying the government could not stop newspapers from publishing the classified papers. While I understood the impact of this decision – a triumph for First Amendment rights -- I knew next to nothing about Ellsberg. I learned that Nixon’s plumbers ransacked his psychiatrist’s office and that’s about it.

This week’s news prompted me to finally watch the 2009 documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, educated me about Ellsberg and gave me new insight into this historical drama and its relevance today. POV’s (that’s cinema speak for “Point of View”) website, showed the documentary online for free on Monday and Tuesday this week. If you didn’t see it, I say go to your local library and check out the DVD.

Ellsberg was not a hippie peacenik. He was an Establishment figure. A Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, Ellsberg then attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. Between 1954 and 1957, he spent three years as a U.S. Marine Corps commander. In 1959 he joined the RAND corporation global policy think tank. During the 1960s, he was a Dept. of Defense analyst perpetuating the Cold War line until – in good conscience – he could do it no longer.

He leaked a bombshell government study to newspapers chronicling the history of our Southeast Asian police action. The report – which Ellsberg helped write -- revealed how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had lied to the public and dragged the United States into an unjust, unwinnable war. Nixon, happy to see his predecessors with their pants down, nevertheless realized a whistleblower could also get dirt on him. So he went after Ellsberg and tried to muzzle the press.

The film’s title is taken from Henry Kissinger. Imagine that, a war criminal calling someone of principle “the most dangerous man in America.” That speaks loudly about the arrogance and hypocrisy of power. Hearing White House tapes of Nixon’s voice is chilling: “You’re so goddamn conscientious about civilians and I don’t give a damn.”

Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers are relevant in 2011. The U.S. military is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, suicides are on the rise among veterans, wikileaks has revealed things the U.S. government doesn’t want you to know and the guys who blew the whistle are in jail on questionable charges. We would be remiss not to examine history in the context of today’s world and The Most Dangerous Man in America is a great resource for doing that.

The Academy award nominated film is modest, not a hagiography, but I came away from it, seeing Ellsberg as an American hero. It’s a view he would not share. Ellsberg, now 80, feels guilty about the six years he spent in the defense dept., knowing the government was lying to the public, and doing nothing as the death toll mounted in Vietnam.

The “most shameful episode in my life,” he says in the film, was helping Defense Secretary Robert McNamara persuade Pres. Lyndon Johnson to launch the “most disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world” on North Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s disaffection with the war evolved gradually, but by the end of the ‘60s, he could no longer remain “a passive bureaucrat.” The most riveting moments of the film reveal Ellsberg anguishing as he confronted a moral dilemma: violate the secrecy contracts he had signed or stay silent as more lives were lost. The man was willing to go to prison for the rest of his life if it meant stopping the war. Hearing this, there was no way I could not respect the man.

Ultimately, a federal judge threw out the government’s case against Ellsberg. (The Nixon administration had compromised the integrity of its investigation with dirty tricks.) But nobody could have foreseen the outcome.

The recent de-classification of the Pentagon Papers was a quiet news item. There were no world shaking revelations. The contents of the documents were revealed by the news media years ago. Really, the public response has been too quiet. We should be asking ourselves: what parallels do we see today? (Wikileaks for one.) Is the government, acting in our name, conducting itself honorably? What are the possible ramifications of our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Is there transparency in government?

I don’t think we’ve learned from our history. Nixonian policy has become a template for the presidency and Vietnam is our template for waging war. History has vindicated Ellsberg, but if we were today fighting a war with American casualties on a scale with Vietnam, and someone leaked documents revealing executive branch weapons of mass deception, I think he would be Typhoid Mary. Most Americans would swallow that hackneyed government stand-by about that person being a traitor, costing American lives and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The same old song and dance.

Gateway films: One Bright Shining Moment. An intriguing documentary about George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run, this film is a reminder of a good opportunity lost.
Gateway books: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s memoir, upon which much of the film is based.
The Arrogance of Power by Sen. J. William Fulbright. This book by the late Arkansas senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a must-read. Fulbright was writing about U.S. mistakes related to Vietnam, but he could just as well have been writing about today. If only America had heeded his advice.
There is a clip of Fulbright in The Most Dangerous Man in America explaining on a TV news show why he voted with the rest of Congress to give LBJ a blank check to wage war in Vietnam. A formidable political mind, Fulbright wasn’t perfect.
A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It by Sen. Mike Gravel. The two-term Alaska senator is featured in The Most Dangerous Man for introducing the Pentagon Papers into the public record during a filibuster.
Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil “Bud” Krogh. The head of Nixon’s plumber’s unit, Krogh served a brief prison term, turned his life around and is the only one of the plumbers to take ownership of his actions. He is interviewed in the Ellsberg documentary.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"How the Great Religions Began" review

I like the coexist bumper stickers. I'm interested in different faiths. Hence, when I saw Joeseph Gaer's How the Great Religions Began in a thrift store, I bought it.

I was hoping the book would talk about the circumstances in parts of the world that would lead to certain religions originating in those specific regions - the land, conditions, political situations. This book wasn't that deep. However it did refer to how the caste system under Hinduism led to Buddhism and how the the oppression of Jews under the Roman Empire raised hopes for a messiah and gave birth to Christianity.

Gaer's book is basic, a little naive and innocent, respectful and for the time it was written in, quite forward. How the Great Religions Began was written in the 1920s - a time when Christianity was almost the only religion in the United States and Judaism was was a U.S. sub-culture, primarily practiced among Eastern European immigrants on the East Coast.

Religious bigotry in this country was directed at Jews and Catholics. Islam, while it may have existed here since before the Mayflower, by way of the slave trade, was still too minuscule to attract notice. Islamophobia wasn't invented yet in the United States. Of course it's here now in a big way, which makes Gaer's book - while of average scholarly significance - amazingly forward in terms of subject matter and acceptance.

In today's flat, small earth, we have the world and all its cultures accessible at our fingertips. Ninety years ago, it was rare that we would acknowledge an Eastern world existed in history, rarer still for it to be regarded with respect, equal to that of Western culture. Gaer did this, giving space and consideration to such far Eastern religions as Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism.

This isn't to say the book isn't dated. Some of the language, while not disrespectful, may sound that way today. The opening of the chapter on Judaism, while making a point about the diversity within the culture, sounds laughably stereotypical and un-PC today.

There are a few Jews in Abyssinia as dark as any man in that land.
There are a few Jews in China, who like the Chinese, are yellow-skinned and their eyes are almond-shaped and slanted.
There are Jews in Italy, swarthy and black-eyed.
There are Jews in Northern Russia, Canada, Sweden and Norway with blonde hair, white skins and greenish grey eyes.
And there are Jews in Denmark, Germany and Ireland who are red-haired and blue-eyed.
There are short, dark-haired Jews in warmer climates.
There are tall, light-skinned Jews in colder countries.
There are the slender daughters of Zion in Palestine, and there are the fat Jewesses in Tunis and Morocco.

The passage is painful to  read, but while it's unpalatable to modern ears, it is a reflection of the naivete' of the times. It is unlikely that Gaer was intentionally being disrespectful to any culture, and he definitely was not expressing anti-semitism. Gaer may have been marveling at the reach of his own culture.

Originally, Joseph Fisherman, he was born Jewish in Yedinitz, Russia in 1897. A lecturer in contemporary literature at UC Berkeley, he held several positions in the federal government over the years, and in 1958, he became founder and director of the Jewish Heritage Foundation in Beverly Hills. He also wrote a book called Our Jewish Heritage.

The strength of the book is Gaer's openness to world religions at a time when the Western world was not that culturally open. He can be forgiven for language that wouldn't go down well today.

Weaknesses in the book include Gaer's writing style, which sometimes sounds condescending. Not toward different cultures, but to the reader. He writes as if he's talking to a child.

Also, the book contains no bibliography or end notes, taking away from any historical value it might otherwise have. Historically, the book is accurate, but basic and without a lot of depth. A better introduction to comparative religion would be Huston Smith's 1958 book, The Religions of Man.

When reading Gaer's book, however, one can take delight in the similarities between the diverse religions: Buddha's Sermon at Benares and Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Eight-fold Path, Confucios's Five Constant Virtues and Christ's Beatitudes. It was interesting to read about how Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism.

Despite Gaer's flaws, there is something fundamentally decent in his naivete' that one finds near the end of the book. In his belief that monotheism is the apex of religious thought, he writes:

The believer in One God (or Monotheist as he is called) realizes that all of mankind must be regarded as one large family, different as may be the color of people's skins, the words of their speech, or the manner of their daily lives...
The true Monotheist realizes that whatever one race does affects all other races; whatever one nation does affects all other nations; whatever one person does affects all other people - for good or for evil.
And from this the true Monotheist is forced to conclude that only what is good for mankind at large is good for the individual. And what is bad for mankind is bad for the individual in the long run.
This is what is meant by the Brotherhood of Man that all the great religions of today preach.
And through this Brotherhood of Man can be attained not through hatred, but love; not through strife, but cooperation; not through war but peace.

Oh, if it were so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Great Songs of Christmas (Album Five)" review

You may have heard this yuletide oldie before in another life. Piping from a hi fi console at your grandparents' house back in the days when Christmas was Christmas. Maybe your grandpa got the album with a purchase of Good Year snow tires for his Buick.

For years, Good Year and Firestone had an annual rivalry. They both released Christmas albums during the holiday season, and each year's offering was a star-studded event. The tire companies and the record companies - Firestone (RCA), Good Year (Columbia) - brought out the big guns recorded Christmas carols - Bing Crosby, Mahalia Jackson, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Robert Goulet, Isaac Stern, Barbara Streisand...

Somewhere around the early '70s, there were no more records. No more albums at your mechanic and tire dealerships the way Starbucks carries CD's today. A more cynical age was taking shape. Christmas carols. TV variety shows full of singing, dancing and cornball humor - that was okay for Don Draper and Roger Sterling's cocktail lounge lives, but the roach smokin', rock generation was graduating from college, joining the workforce and starting families. They didn't care that Maurice Chevalier made a heartwarming comedy movie in 1932.

Perhaps Good Year's Great Songs of Christmas, that album I picked up from the bargain bin at the used record store is carrying the ghost of that man who picked it up with a lube job. Maybe he wore a fedora hat and kept his Pal Malls in a silver-plated cigarette case, who knows? What if that 33 rpm record is the portal? If within its groves, I would slip into the black hole that is the ghost of Christmas Past? .

Album Five, the words on the record sleeve say. That means it was released in 1965. The album sleeve is a Christmas red with images of cute little Christmas cookie angels. Below are pictures of the singers and musicians featured in the album.
O' Holy Night sung by Andy Williams is easily the best recording on the album, not only because it is the greatest Christmas song ever written, but for the way its carried by Williams's velvet-like voice. His stirring vocals give this classic carol the drama and reverence it deserves. I can envision the manger, the illustrious star, grasp the holiness of the scene. Near the end of the song, Williams's voice registers to a falsetto, accentuating its holiness.

With a top-rated TV variety show and hit records coming from all sides, Williams was a smart choice for this album. He may not have been as Christmasy as Perry Como, but he was huge deal in entertainment-at-large.

Williams's recording fittingly begins the album. First cut on side one. The second best track, appropriately enough, is the last one on side two - "Jingle Bells", sung by the swingest cat, Mr. Showbiz, Sammy Davis, Jr. and here, Mr. Davis shows why he is a consummate professional. He takes the most ordinary, cliched of Christmas songs and turns it into a hip, swingin' affair.

But Davis's "Jingle Bells" is only a medley. It leads into the only original composition on the album, "It's Christmas Time All Over the World," written by Hugh Martin, who also wrote such classics as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In Davis's hands, this new (for 1965) song takes on a Sinatra-like "Come Fly With Me" vibe. The children's chorus calls to mind Sinatra's "High Hopes," while giving a glimpse of what's to come seven years later when Davis will record that perennial childlike favorite, "The Candy Man."

Naturally, I would prefer that this whole album be in a ballad and swingin' mold, something along the lines of that tradition Michael Buble is keeping alive today. This is not that album. I have, however, come to appreciate what it is -  and this is the point at which the time portal works its educational magic. The Great Songs of Christmas (Album Five) is a product of those days when Broadway show tunes, opera and classical orchestras constituted hit album sales.

Take Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Can we ever have enough Eugene Ormandy Orchestra? Don't be so cavalier. I'd say he's worthy of respect. The man conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years and he had directed the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra for five years before that.

I particularly like the orchestra's performance of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" because it's so historical. Most of us know little about The Wise Men except that they're these figures in Nativity sets who brought the Christ child gold, frankincense and myrrh. According to the book of Matthew, the only Gospel account that mentions them, they did not meet Jesus until he was around two years old and in his home. The orient the song refers to is Persia and the wise men were mostly likely priests of the high caste of Zoroastrianism who were deep into astrology. Therefore, they followed the "star," possibly a comet. Biblical scholars have written that the wise men made the journey because they were aware of the prophecies in Daniel that foretold the birth of the messiah.

Back to Eugene Ormandy. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., he was Jewish, which is interesting since they're featured on a Christmas album. Although Ormandy was born into it and of Hungarian origin.

I recently listened to a segment on NPR, asking "What happened to classical Christmas music?" This album takes the listener back to the days when classical music was still a mainstay of the season's musical palate. Opera singers Andre Kostelanetz, Richard Tucker and Anna Mari Alberghetti are featured, performing The Great Songs of Christmas.

Anna Mari Alberghetti? you ask. She was only on "The Ed Sullivan Show" more than 50 times. A lot more times than Elvis. Her soprano voice in "Caroling, Caroling" captures the sing-along, skippity-skip lilt of the song. With her girlish voice and seasonal aura, one can envision caroling merry makers in a snow-capped gingerbread neighborhood.

Dinah Shore and Doris Day have similar voices - white, sweet and virginal. They are good voices, yet the types that today would not make it past the initial auditioning on "American Idol" or "The Voice" because they would not sound contemporary enough. All the more reason to give them a listen - and a chance. Figure out what made them such smashing stars in the '50s and '60s.

The best selection on this album by a female singer is Diahann Caroll's version of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," not only because her voice is the most original of the female voices on the album, but because the song - although it is more than 400 years old - the least known. Hence, it is the most original. The lyrics about a blooming flower are symbolic of Christ's birth.

Mrs. Webb, the music teacher at my kids's school, is good about bringing fresh  songs into the elementary school Christmas concerts she directs. The kids have sang songs about diversity and caring for the earth. Neat, original stuff. "There are about five standard Christmas songs and I didn't want to be 'that teacher,'" she told me.
Overall, The Great Songs of Christmas is that album. Perhaps, it's appropriate, consistent with the album's title. True, "The Little Drummer Boy" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" aren't my favorite songs. But their inclusion on this album is a window into a time when Christmas conventions were par for the course. The Golden Age of Christmas music lasted from around 1940 to 1965. This album, this culture, which for a time was coexisting with the Beatles was on the wane. In an era when the Beatles are taking their rightful place in history's archives, it is interesting to see the world as it was before.

One of my favorite songs on the album - remember I prefer the jumping tunes - is "Sleigh Ride," sung by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Here's one that takes me back to the grandparent's house and the hi-fi console.  From somewhere in the house, someone was jangling bells and it was proof positive to me that Santa was flying nearby on his sleigh. This yuletide classic pop song, sung by the swift, crisp as clean, swingin' voices of Steve and Eydie captures all that razmatazz.

"Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup, let's go." Steve Lawrence's voice coming in like a lashing whip. Listening, I can only think, "How cool is this guy?"

The somber religious selections by Kostelanetz and Ormandy do seem pedestrian and staid, but when I focus more closely, I think about why they were included here, why this holiday is what it is. It becomes clear in my mind as I hear opera tenor Richard Tucker's version of "The Lord's Prayer." Somber. Reverential. Along with the toy soldier Christmas merriment I felt as a kid at Christmas, I also recapture another holiday feeling I absorbed then - the religiosity.

The belief.

I'm just as jaded and cynical as anyone else. More so, probably. But I'll open the door, the window to that place as art dictates. You may not like every song on this album or every musical style represented, but I say open yourself up and see if you don't find Christmas spirit, real as Doscher's candy canes.

                    Steve and Edyie Gorme' singing "Sleigh Ride."
                    Edyie died last August at age 84.
                                        Terrible loss.  

                          On the Christmas album, Richard Tucker sings,
                           "The Lord's Prayer." Here is Frank Sinatra's
                           beautiful version of the song.

How could this sweet thing ever be forgotten? Here is Anna Maria's beautiful number, "Love Makes the World Go Round" from the musical "Carnival."

I didn't care for Maurice Chevalier's singing of 
"Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and I cared even 
less for his version of "Silent Night." But, I love his song, "Mimi" 
from the 1932 movie "Love Me Tonight." You really ought to 
care about that.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"The Chaperone" review

Louise Brooks was an icon of the silent film era. But only a few years before she became a celluloid heroine, she was a 15-year-old girl from Wichita, Kan. trying to make it as a dancer in New York. A 36-year-old housewife accompanied her on this trip, acting as her chaperone.

In her novel, The Chaperone, Lori Moriarty imagines the generational tension that likely existed between the teenage Louise and her middle aged chaperone. The two women came of age in entirely different eras and saw the world differently. It is easy to speculate, as Moriarty does, that there was friction.

Cora, the chaperone, is a product of the Victorian era. She's bundled in, wearing a corset and skirts that descend to her feet. In her world, sex is never mentioned and only hinted at in hushed, vague terms if it is even referred to at all.

Louise is already wearing her hair in the straight black classic bob style she will make famous a few years later. She wears skirts raised above the knees and at times goes without a bra. She is coming to bloom in the frivolous Jazz Age with its bathtub gin and relaxed morals.

Although Louise went on to be a film star, she's a supporting character in the novel. This story belongs to Cora. As the chaperone, she tries to keep Louise within the limits of propriety. But it’s Cora who breaks with convention and gains liberated new sensibilities. Cora finds her own unique voice and works through her vulnerabilities to emerge as a strong, independent-minded woman.

Moriarty cleverly uses the corset as a symbol in Cora’s evolving character. She treats the constricting undergarment as a metaphor for the restrictions society placed on women's lives. The moment Cora frees her body from the corset's grip, she frees her mind as well.

But don't discard The Chaperone as a "chick book." I would classify it as historical fiction with an element of mystery. There is enough going on in this book to make it enjoyable to readers of either gender.

Moriarty uses characters and situations to touch on historical events: the Victorian era, Suffragettes, World War I, the Spanish Influenza, the Orphan trains, Klu Klux Klan, the Jazz Age, prohibition, Civil Rights...

She did scrupulous research, which enabled her to get her facts straight and make her story believable. The historical precision gives her writing authenticity and authority.  Moriarty’s research shows in the way she weaves in facts about Louise's personal and professional life. Her parents were neglectful. She was molested as a child in Cherryvale, Kan. She did dance with Denishawn in New York, under Ruth St. Dennis. She did have a drinking problem. She did return to Wichita for awhile after her movie career flamed out.

Moriarty is true to Louise's character, having her say and do things like the actual Louise would have done. She is depicted as selfish, self-absorbed and manipulative, just as the real Louise was. Yet it's still easy to like her. Moriarty draws on Louise's life in ways that evoke admiration, as well as sympathy. Her acerbic lines are some of the best in the book.

The relationship between Louise and Cora is the most interesting in a book that contains several interesting and unique relationships. Their dialogue is enlivened by tension and competing interests, creating the most crisp character interplay of the book. Significantly, Cora does find commonalities with Louise, and the two women do develop a cautious respect for each other.

Change is a constant of life, and the two women’s lives are altered forever during that summer when their paths intersect. Their transformations take shape at a time when the rules of society were changing and never going back. But don’t be surprised, when reading this book, if the puritanism, prejudices and “slut shaming” in its pages don’t sound strangely contemporary.

After all, we know what happens the more things change.

Gateway literature

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which Cora is reading on the trip. Also read the German philosopher Schopenhauer, whom Louise was reading on the same trip. Moriarty did extensive research to make her book historically authentic, and anything from her bibliography would be worth reading. If I had to recommend one, though, it would be Louise Brooks: A Biography by Barry Paris. It's been called the "bible on Brooks."

Gateway films

Anything with Louise Brooks in her prime, of course, especially her greatest artistic achievements, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Here is a video montage of Brooks.